Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Lincoln document found

The National Archives has unveiled a handwritten note by Lincoln exhorting his generals to pursue Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle of Gettysburg, underscoring one of the great missed opportunities for an early end to the Civil War. "An archives Civil War specialist discovered the July 7, 1863, note three weeks ago in a batch of military papers stored among the billions of pages of historical documents at the mammoth building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The text of Lincoln’s note has been publicly known because the general to whom Lincoln addressed it telegraphed the contents verbatim to the front lines at Gettysburg. There, the Union army’s leaders failed for more than a week to aggressively pursue Lee following his defeat." This is the note dated July 7, 1863 addressed to general Halleck, found in Basler, Vol. VI, p. 319:


"We have certain information that Vicksburg surrendered to general Grant on the 4th of July. Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over."

Discussions - 2 Comments

That letter was written without a true understanding of the condition of the Army of the Potomac. Gettysburg was one of the most exhausting confrontations in military history. The armies were moving over twenty miles a day just getting to Gettysburg. And each day of the battle was hellacious.

Horses can be and have been ridden unto death. Armies can be spent in like manner. As for the withdraw of the Army of Northern Virginia, those that survived the battle, survived the retreat and somehow managed to survive the war itself, recalled those days and nights pulling out of Pennsylvania as perhaps the most grueling of the entire war.

Ike and Bradley should be blamed for refusing Patton permission to seal off the Falaise Gap. But Mead should not be blamed for his failure to pursue the beaten Army of Northern Virginia. Lee in retreat, Lee beaten, was still Lee. And Mead, unlike many with stars on their shoulder, was not an egomaniac. He knew Lee, and knew him to be dangerous. Moreover Mead was new to command. And he did not exercise command as most imagine generals to exercise command. He ruled by consensus. He was not a Patton, nor was he a Lee. The actual battle of Gettysburg was waged against his desires. He was committed by Buford, his Cavalry commander, then Reynolds, then Hancock, who famously said: "I choose this to be the battlefield." As late as the night of the first day, Mead was still arguing for his location of Mine Creek, I think that was the name, {may be wrong there}. It was only on the strength of all the Generals praising the ground that the Union Army occupied, that Mead relented, and allowed himself to be persuaded that the battle should occur at Gettysburg.

Dan's assessment is correct. Most people don't realize the degree to which the Army of the Potomac had been shattered. I believe that Lincoln was intuitively a pretty good strategist, but he didn't realize the condition of Meade's army after Gettysburg. As the Duke of Welllington said, the only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost. BTW, the defensive line Meade looked to was Pipe Creek, just over the Maryland line. Mine Creek is in Virginia.

In the near future, I will continue my series on Civil War campaigns with a discussion of Gettysburg. But first I am going to do something entitled "From Beaver Dam Creek to Antietam" about Lee's Summer-Fall Virginia and Maryland campaign.

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